BARCELONA, Spain -- The first Ubuntu phones will launch in the autumn, and will be "astonishingly great in some areas" and "weak in others" -- but the software "outperforms" Microsoft, according to Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth.
Ubuntu-powered versions of the Meixu MX3 and BQ Aquaris smartphones will debut in the third quarter of this year. I sat down with Shuttleworth, the face of British company Canonical, the people behind Ubuntu, at phone and tablet extravaganza Mobile World Congress, where he revealed why Ubuntu is launching with partners Meizu and BQ.
"Our first generation of phones will be astonishingly great in some areas," Shuttleworth explained, "but will come across as weak in others. So if we get them into the right hands, people can celebrate the things we're really great at while we buff up the app catalogue and improve in other areas.
"We won't have 650,000 apps in the app store, so we'll get the phone in the hands of people who don't care about that first."
So why Meizu and BQ, names which may be unfamiliar to many phone fans? "We are at board level with quite a few household names," said Shuttleworth, "but with much larger institutions we're going to be a smaller part of the strategic picture when we launch. So we wanted to go out with two companies that are the right size to make a material commitment, and also are two companies that are very passionate about placing the right device in the right hands...companies that are established at getting into difficult, entrenched, or congested markets with something that feels fresh for the right people at the right time -- and both of them have that.
"BQ in Europe has taken good share by concentrating on design, by knowing very clearly who they're designing for, and then thinking very carefully about the retail strategy.
"And Meizu in China, again, they've really cracked into the market by building loyalty, they've identified a particular segment, and they've been really great at working to do something those guys are passionate about. They call that segment 'digital lifestyle': typically younger, typically edgier, typically more conscious of what's new and cool -- and less likely to buy from a bulk manufacturer."
The two phones will be available to order from anywhere in the world, but they're built by local, rather than global, brands. "China is super-important," Shuttleworth said. "Europe is interesting as well. We have carriers in the US, but we'll focus on these two markets, these two manufacturers for this year and this launch."
What do the phones offer? "The hardware is pretty standout," he said. "Both companies have access to pretty top-notch design and manufacturing -- and they care about it. What you care about goes into the product, and both of them really care about the feel of the device. I think we'll be outstanding in several areas of the UX: A lot of people say compared to Android it feels really beautiful, compared to Firefox it feels really fluid and fast. So I think we'll stand out."
And how is Ubuntu encouraging the app situation in the meantime? "We make it easy for app developers to care about Ubuntu," Shuttleworth said. "If you care about something but it's hard, you can't do anything; if it's easy, you can do something about it. We've refined it so that any app developer team can have one or two people who really care about Ubuntu, and we've done that by looking at the toolsets people use to develop for Android and iOS and made sure we're well lined-up to make it easy to use those toolsets...We're perfectly aligned with Google and Apple so if you've got an HTML5 app that works with Android or iOS, it will work with Ubuntu, with only a tiny amount of friction that just one person can take care of.
"In the native applications, we've got pretty good traction in gaming because lots of games companies are targeting Ubuntu. In productivity apps, we're looking at ways to make it easy for Android apps to come to Ubuntu. And we've got a nice big catalogue of apps that are Java apps and Linux apps."
Livin' on the Edge
One phone we won't see become a reality anytime soon is the Ubuntu Edge, which Canonical attempted to crowdfund last year -- to the tune of an eye-watering $32 million. Said Shuttleworth: "Our story is of convergence, and manufacturers said, 'There's no market for that.' We said, 'You can test that.' They said, 'You test it.' So we did! They were completely surprised by the amount of attention we received."
So the campaign may have sent a message to manufacturers, but Shuttleworth doesn't consider it a success. "I didn't set out to miss the target...We missed by a record. We set a record with what we raised, but we missed by a record too! It's clear that Kickstarter for hardware is very challenging."
This time last year, we voted the then-named Ubuntu Touch as our best product of MWC 2013, narrowly squeezing out Firefox OS. Since then, Firefox has popped up on an assortment of phones, while actual Ubuntu hardware is conspicuous by its absence. But Shuttleworth doesn't want to rush into anything: "Sometimes it's worth getting in fast, and sometimes it's worth getting it right. I think the most fatal thing for a manufacturer, early on in the adoption of a new product, is high return rates at low margins. Word on the street (about Firefox) is high return rates, low margins."
"It would be lovely to have a carrier come to us and say, "OK, we're just going to swamp the market with your phones," but the blowback, if 40 percent of those devices come back, would be catastrophic. Catastrophic. If you have a manufacturer on a 5 percent margin, and half the devices come back, you've got a massive loss. You can try and refurbish them, recycle, but it's a real mess.
"That's led us to be very careful about our launch partners, perhaps taking a little longer to refine the design, and the feedback that we get is that it's worth doing that. I don't think we'll regret that thoughtfulness."
Ultimately, Ubuntu is about convergence: the same operating system seamlessly working across devices, from PC to tablet to smartphone and beyond. "There are lots of bright people who have built good mobile experiences," said Shuttleworth. "I think what's profoundly different about ours is it's part of this convergence family. We've significantly raised the bar for people who have that vision.
"Microsoft has that vision: that you can have a family of interfaces that give you the ability to use different devices with a common theme and common values...Of all people I can appreciate how difficult it must have been for Microsoft, but I still think we've outperformed them in terms of bringing that convergence story to be a reality.
"This is not the end of the disruptions: As we move into a wearable era, the story that we've been telling -- of personal computing co-opting all of the glass around you in appropriate ways -- becomes the interesting story. At its heart you've got to have a platform that appropriates whatever's around it. That's the story we've been consistently building towards."
For more on the coolest new phones, tablets and wearable technology, check out our in-depth coverage of Mobile World Congress 2014.